It is safe to say that any book with the word Dachau in the title is not going to be an easy read and Zeller’s analysis of one of the darkest chapters in human history is certainly not for the fainthearted. Even as Holocaust histories go, it is extremely graphic in places and some of the accounts of loss and cruelty are almost unbearable to read. However, it is also fair to say that, for all the atrocities it catalogues, The Priest Barracks: Dachau 1938-1945 is primarily a book about grace. It is the individual stories of heroism and sacrifice which make this book such a valuable contribution to the modern reader’s understanding of a time that is quietly slipping out of living memory.
The fate of the thousands of priests and seminarians who were sent to the Nazi concentration camps, many never to return, has received very little acknowledgement and few are aware that there were barracks in Dachau exclusively inhabited by priests, seminarians, a small number of Protestant pastors and even, for a short time, two imams of Albanian origin. The Priest Barracks is the story of religious men from all over Europe – Germany, Austria, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia and even a priest from England – who were forced to live out their vocations on the Calvary the Nazis created. In some cases, the Calvary metaphor became a reality, such as in the case of the priest who was ordered to fashion a crown out of barbed wire and wear it, whilst Jewish prisoners were forced to mock him and spit at him in a grotesque re-enactment of the Passion.
Zeller’s book is meticulously researched and offers a thorough record of the daily lives of the priests in Dachau, the many indignities and torments they suffered, the use of priests as guinea pigs for horrific medical experiments that left many maimed or dead, the clandestine religious activities carried out at great personal risk, not to mention the mental and spiritual tools the priests used to carry themselves through the hell of their imprisonment. The stories are not without sudden, unexpected flashes of humor, such as the description of two priests engaged in a deeply intellectual discourse that would not have disgraced the high table at a Cambridge college – all delivered whilst stark naked. Such tactics helped the prisoners to rise above the daily humiliations they suffered at Dachau and to retain some sense of who they were when their humanity was under constant attack. The narrative is replete with the names of heroic individuals – many of whom did not survive – whose acts of charity, bravery and sometimes defiance have never been forgotten by those who witnessed them.
It should be stressed that this is not a hagiography. At no point does Zeller lapse into sentimentality and he does not flinch from giving the full picture of what life in the priest barracks was really like, including the less edifying details. The terrible politics surrounding the Dachau chapel – ruled over with a rod of iron by the SS – makes for distressing reading for Catholics. Non-German priests were for a time excluded from using the chapel, meaning that Polish priests were denied Communion by their German confreres and had to celebrate Mass in secret. The laity were also initially banned from entering the chapel and were violently prevented from attending Mass by their own people, who were desperate to avoid losing the chapel altogether. There are (mercifully very few) tales of selfishness, such as the German priest witnessed throwing away food whilst those around him starved.
The capacity of the prisoners themselves to persecute one another comes as a shock when there is always the underlying assumption that suffering ought to unite people. The brutality of the Kapos (camp guards who were themselves prisoners) is well-documented but it is still painful to think of communist prisoners taunting Catholics when they were all threatened with violent death at any moment. However, these stories are tempered by the intensely moving accounts of solidarity between factions, which saw militantly atheistic communists taking Communion to dying Catholics as a final act of consolation, knowing the penalties if they were caught. I could not help contrasting these acts of brotherhood with the behavior of some contemporary atheists, who film themselves desecrating the Eucharist simply to hurt Catholics.
Ultimately, it is the many examples of courage and solidarity that stop the book becoming simply a catalogue of atrocities and it is the overwhelming sense of hope at the heart of the work that the reader can take away with it; the men who shared their last scrap of bread, the dignity shown in the face of appalling acts of degradation, the priests who willingly nursed dying prisoners when a Typhus epidemic broke out, knowing that they would almost certainly succumb to an agonizing death themselves; the elderly priests who joked that they were going on the “Ascension Transport” when they were selected to be transported to gas chambers at another location. The martyrdom of Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz is widely known, but until recently, less has been said about the many martyrs of Dachau who were killed sometimes simply for asking God to forgive their torturers. Still less has been said about the sufferings priests endured long after their liberation from Dachau, with some priests from Eastern Europe going home to face further persecution and detention by the Communists. Zeller’s book is a much-needed testament to the forgotten witnesses and martyrs of the Nazi aggression and its aftermath.
In England and Wales, Catholics recently celebrated Vocations Sunday. A young seminarian came to the parish to talk about his vocation and we were all urged to pray for more priests. I could not help hoping that vocations programs in the future might include Zeller’s account of the seminarian ordained in Dachau who died a saintly death shortly after saying his first Mass. The world will always need the witness of truly holy priests.
The Priest Barracks: Dachau 1938-1945
by Guillaume Zeller
Ignatius Press, 2017
Paperback, 280 pages